Futures Made Possible

By John Kelly
Thursday, January 8, 2009

When I was in the fifth grade, I had a friend who brought an old copy of Life magazine to school one day to share with our class. It was from the 1940s and featured a story about a boy who had fallen on a playground and pierced his chest with the mechanical pencil he had in his pocket. The pencil went into his heart, and the story was about the pioneering surgery that saved his life.

The boy grew up, got married and had kids, one of whom was Melissa, the blond girl who brought in that faded copy of Life magazine with the picture of her father at her age.

I thought about Melissa the other day as I pondered the end of this year's fundraising campaign for Children's National Medical Center. Will the children I wrote about over the past eight weeks have my columns in their scrapbooks, next to baby pictures, report cards and locks of hair? Forty years from now, will their children bring the crumpled newsprint in to show and tell?

I also thought about the anxiety that a sick child produces for a family, how life becomes something lived in the horrible present with no time to think about the future. And then I thought about what happens when a sick child is healed, how the future becomes a blank slate brimming with possibility.

I'm curious what life has in store for the boys and girls I met this year. There was Jessica Gregory from Forestville, born with spina bifida. She's 10 now, an independent girl who does martial arts and could, I'm quite sure, kick my butt. There was Madison Major, a 3-year-old from La Plata whose leukemia -- after some truly wrenching days -- is finally in remission. ("The doctors here, and the nurses, they have such a compassion for what they do," Madison's mother, Robyn, told me.)

There were Justin Murphy and Sean Abercrombie, strapping teenage athletes laid low by freak twists of fate: Justin by an injured pancreas, Sean by the slow erosion of the myelin sheath around his nerves. There was Greg Wagner of Damascus, who suffered a brain aneurysm at 3 and now, 20 years later, runs marathons, raises money for Children's Hospital and ponders a future as an inspirational speaker. There was Patrick Formhals, a 15-year-old from Oak Hill, whose scoliosis had twisted his backbone but who after five hours of painstaking surgery emerged with a spine as straight as a ruler -- and a pair of titanium rods and 20 screws.

There was Paige Calvo, the Sterling 5-year-old whose life changed in an instant when a candle caught her skirt on fire but who, after a series of skin grafts, is making a full recovery. ("When she feels an itch or pain, she looks at me and says, 'My new skin is growing,' " said her mother, Michelle.)

There was Amber Rudy, a Maryland 3-year-old prone to frequent nosebleeds. I watched Dr. Rahul Shah remove a tumor from her nose in the slickest bit of surgery I've ever seen.

And there was little Addison Steiding, the baby parents Adrian and Lisa had hoped for -- dreamed about -- but who, after two failed in vitro fertilization attempts, they worried might never come. At Lisa's 20-week sonogram, the Steidings learned that Addie's heart hadn't formed correctly and that once born she'd need complicated surgery.

That first operation will be at Children's Hospital in about five months. Until then her parents dote on her and fatten her up in their Gainesville home.

"Addie is almost 10 pounds now," Lisa reported. "Adrian is back to work, and I'm still on leave. I'm loving every minute of it."

Addie: If you should see this article at some distant point in the future, tracing your fingers along the photo of that laughing baby who was you when you were brand-new, give a thought to everyone who read about you and wished you well. And remember that the future is your toy to play with. Grab it and go, girl.

A Final Plea

This is a difficult year to ask for money, but the only way you get it is by asking. So: Please give. Your donation will go to Children's Hospital's uncompensated care fund, paying the bills of poor boys and girls. To give, write a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on the recording.

Join me tomorrow at noon for my weekly online chat. Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions. And check out my blog, "John Kelly's Commons," at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. E-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company